Between arrests, a blowout loss, and a 1-2 start to the 2010 season, the Pitt football team has been taking blows from all sides over the past month. And the players are starting to respond to the turmoil.
"I'm disgusted with how everything's been going," redshirt junior linebacker Max Gruder said on Tuesday. "It reflects my leadership and I'm not happy with it. I need to step up personally, especially now that I'm the middle linebacker."
Gruder took over as Pitt's starting middle linebacker when sophomore Dan Mason suffered a dislocated knee in the third quarter of the Panthers' 31-3 loss to Miami at Heinz Field last Thursday. Gruder will stay in that role for the remainder of the season, which combines with his experience to position him as a leader for a team that appears to lack in that category.
"I really need to step it up, not only on the field but off the field, showing guys how to work, showing guys what needs to be done to get a winning record around here. We need to step it up in all facets.
"It's tough right now. Going into the season, I don't think in any person's mind, even in the worst scenario, did we ever think we'd be 1-2. Everyone fully expected to be 3-0. We're not where we want to be."
The poor on-field showing has coincided with troubling events off the field. In the past three weeks, redshirt freshman Jason Douglas, walk-on Keith Coleman, and freshman Jeff Knox were each arrested in separate incidents. Douglas and Coleman were suspended indefinitely, Knox was dismissed from the team, and Mason was demoted for his involvement in Douglas' incident.
"It's a lot of young guys who don't really know how this team works," Gruder said. "Since I've been here, I've never seen this happen; guys here and there have messed up, but the string of disciplinary problems that we've had are unacceptable and something that is tarnishing what Pitt is all about. We're not that type of team.
"[Head coach Dave Wannstedt] brings in great kids; I can tell you that. The kids that are here are great on the field, off the field, and in the classroom. They're good kids, and I genuinely mean that. What's happened the last couple weeks is not representative of what this Pitt team is."
In order to help re-establish what Pitt is - or, at least, should be - Gruder plans to draw on the players who set the example for him.
"Everybody has a different leadership style. Scott (McKillop) and LaRod (Stephens-Howling) were great leaders to me, and they never really said much. People looked up to them because of the way they worked on the field, and you could just look at them; you knew they were going to be doing the right thing, you knew they were going to be playing hard, and you knew they were going to make plays when they needed to make them. That's the leader I'm trying to be. I don't speak as much; I speak when I need to.
"[Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett] always says, you can be a leader in any type of way that you want. The way I want to be a leader is to show people how to work and how to play hard."
Gruder's leadership on the field might be as important as the example he sets off the field. Pitt's loss to Miami was its biggest blowout defeat since losing to Virginia 44-14 in September of 2007, and it was the third time since 2005 that the Panthers have not scored an offensive touchdown in a game.
Overall, last Thursday's game will go down as one of the worst, most demoralizing losses in the Wannstedt Era at Pitt. For Gruder, the combination of on-field struggles and off-field issues has reached the point of being unacceptable, and he intends to help foster a change.
"I went up to Coach Bennett after watching the film and I was feeling a little bit down. It's tough watching all the players who have the capability, including myself, on the defense not making the plays they need to make, not doing what they need to do. I went and talked to him and told him that I need to step up with some of the things that are going on off the field; I think that reflects the leadership on our team, and I think I personally need to stand up."